Handworked Buttonhole Tutorial

The buttonhole: A simple, practical piece of thread engineering that stops our clothes from falling off (or bits of us escaping)!

You will, when sewing, come across the need to make them. Lots of garments rely on buttons and the associated hole. Now most sewing machines have the capabilities of making buttonholes for you, which is good but often they cause problems. I am forever hearing of how people struggle and how their machine messes buttonholes up. I’ll be honest, most of the machines I have ever owned have messed up at some time.

Another option is to make ‘handworked’ buttonholes. With practice they look much better than machine made and will add another level to the quality of your sewing. Yes they do take time and yes you will need to practice them to get good results but it is definitely worth it. I know it is always scary cutting open a buttonhole BEFORE it is made but by being careful you can do it!

I have been asked for a tutorial on Handworked Buttonholes for ages and I have finally got round to doing one. So here goes…

Types of buttonhole

There are 2 styles of handworked buttonhole: The ‘Normal’ and the ‘Milanese’. (Both photos are my actual work!)

Normal handworked buttonhole
Milanese handworked buttonhole

Both these styles could have 3 different shapes: Square, rounded and keyhole.

The ‘Normal’ buttonhole is exactly that. It is just a normal buttonhole and the type I will demonstrate in the tutorial. The ‘Milanese’ is often found on lapels and looks completely different. It is more decorative, delicate and stands proud from the cloth. I will do a tutorial on the Milanese for my next post.

In the tutorial we will make a keyhole shaped buttonhole but will explain how the other shapes are made.


To create a professional looking buttonhole you will need the correct equipment. The buttonhole itself, is made in silk buttonhole twist thread. The thread is ‘worked’ over a thick stiff thread called ‘Gimp’.


You will also need a needle (I use a size 5 sharp), a thimble, some fine silk thread, a block of beeswax and some thick paper (I use brown wrapping paper). (I get my supplies from Kenton Trimmings.)

For the tutorial I will use CONTRASTING threads for clarity but when making a real version you should use suitable coloured threads. A buttonhole should be discreet!

Click on photos for a clearer view.


Prepare the buttonhole.

  1. Measure your button and mark the buttonhole. The buttonhole needs to be big enough to let the button pass through. The arrow points towards the ‘front’ of the buttonhole.


2. Now you will be working on several layers so it is a good idea to speed baste around the buttonhole to secure everything. Remember in my last post I said basting was important!


3. Now you need to stitch around the buttonhole, either by hand or, if you are careful, by machine. Use the fine silk thread for this and keep the stitches 1.5-2mm from the centreline. Make the shape of the button at the front and straight at the back. This line of stitches act as a guide later in the process to keep your buttonhole stitches even and well distanced.

Hand sewn
Machine sewn

4. For a keyhole shape carefully punch the hole at the front end.


5. Now carefully cut along the centreline with small scissors to the back.


6. Trim the fabric from the hole to centre to form a ‘teardrop’ shape opening. This step is important to get a good shape when finished.


7. Take the fine silk thread again and overcast around the inside of the buttonhole. This will keep any fraying to a minimum.


Prepare the buttonhole twist thread.

The buttonhole twist I use is silk and from Gutermann. It comes in 10m rolls in a large range of colours. ALWAYS allow more thread than you think! Take approx 1m of thread for a 1 inch buttonhole.

  1. Now pass the thread through the beeswax at least 4 times. You want to coat the surface of the thread well.


2. Place the waxed thread between the folded paper.


3. Rest a hot iron on the paper and slowly pull the thread through the paper. This will melt the wax into the thread. You will hear it ‘squeak’ as it is pulled through.


See how the excess wax soaks into the paper?


4. You will know if you have done it correctly as the thread will now stand up when held.


Right or Left handed?

The direction you sew your buttonhole is determined by whether you are Right or Left handed!

If you are RIGHT handed you will sew clockwise around the buttonhole. Left handed?….Yep you sew anticlockwise.

The starting point is also different. Right handers start at the right side end and Left handers, left side end.

Work that buttonhole!

  1. Being RIGHT handed I start by making a couple of small loose stitches away from the end of the buttonhole to secure the thread. Don’t tie a knot! NOTE I have turned the work 90 degrees clockwise so the ‘front’ of the buttonhole is now pointing left.
  2. Bring the needle up through the end of the buttonhole where you stitched earlier. This point will be where you finish later.


3. You now make a bar tack by sewing across the end 4 times. Go from corner to corner, carefully keeping the stitches together. Finish at the point you started (top in photo)


4. From this point sew around those threads (from top to bottom in photo). Keep the stitches close together to form a neat bar tack.


You will finish at the opposite side to where you started!


**If you were left handed you would do everything the opposite way round and a mirror image of what I just demonstrated**

Turn the work 90 degrees clockwise again so ‘front’ of buttonhole is at the top.

5. Insert the needle through the buttonhole and out at the last point the thread came from (LH end of bar tack).



6. Take the 2 ends of thread coming from the eye of the needle and wrap them CLOCKWISE under the needle point.


7. Push the needle through and pull up carefully. DON’T PULL TIGHT but until it looks like the next photo.


8. Cut a piece of Gimp 2.5x the length of the buttonhole and slide into the loop of thread on the left. Leave about 1cm longer than end of buttonhole. The Gimp is also from Gutermann and it is a silk wrapped polyester core.


9. Now pull the buttonhole thread directly up (away from the fabric) and then towards the cut opening. A small knot will form. The knot should lie against the cut edge of the buttonhole. Keep the Gimp pulled away from the opening (towards the left in photo)


10. Repeat the same stitch. Put needle half way in, right next to last stitch. Again pull Gimp away.


11. Loop ends as before, clockwise, take needle through and pull up as before.


**IMPORTANT** You are using the silk thread line you stitched earlier to keep the correct distance from the cut buttonhole.

12. Repeat the stitch until you have done about 5 stitches.


13. Slowly pull the Gimp so the loose end (bottom in photo) just disappears into the first stitch.


14. Now continue the buttonhole stitch until you reach the keyhole.

15. At the keyhole angle the needle (towards rear) slightly for the first stitch.


16. Then work around the keyhole. You will need to fan out the stitches slightly as you go. Stop when you get to the centreline.


Now turn your work 180 degrees so you are facing the rear of the buttonhole.


17. Continue the same stitch until you are a few stitches away from the bar tack.


18. At this point cut the remaining Gimp level with the bar tack. Continue the buttonhole stitch until the end of the bar tack.


19. Take the needle and pass through to the wrong side. Right at the end of the bar tack.


20. On the reverse sew a few backstitches to secure the buttonhole twist.



21. Cut off the tread. Pull the first loose stitches, you made at the start, through to the back and clip off.


Finishing off.

The last step really completes the buttonhole. You will need something firm (I use a block of wood) covered with a piece of cotton/linen/calico.


Place the finished buttonhole, face down, over the covered block. With a hot iron press over the buttonhole.


This sets the buttonhole. It eases the buttonhole stitch ‘knots’ to the inside and remelts the wax on the thread to set.


Finish by basting the buttonhole closed. You don’t want to catch it on something!


All the steps outlined above are reversed/mirrored for someone who is LEFT HANDED. As said you will work the buttonhole anticlockwise and wrap the thread anticlockwise. The principle is identical just direction of travel.

Thoughts, Tips and helpful insights.

Making hand worked buttonholes is not difficult but It is difficult to achieve a good looking one! There are no shortcuts here apart from practice. It is said you need to make 100 buttonholes before you get a good one. I disagree. If you take your time at the start and go slow you can achieve a good finish. With practice you will get better and certainly become faster! The key is being consistent.

  • Don’t skip any of the steps I have outlined
  • Use good quality silk thread
  • Use a good quality needle
  • Practice
  • Baste everything together
  • Take your time!
  • If it doesn’t work first time, DO IT AGAIN!
  • Practice again
  • And finally, Practice again!

The good thing is you don’t need much to practice. Some lengths of prepared buttonhole twist, a few scraps of fabric and some Gimp…..

Talking of Gimp.

Gimp comes in 100m rolls in various colours but unless you make a lot of handworked buttonholes is it worth buying/keeping lots of it? Well I only ever keep 2 colours, Black and Grey. The colours are good for the majority of buttonholes I make but on occasion I might make completely different coloured ones. Do I buy 100m of Gimp to match? NO make your own!

Lets say you are making 10 Red buttonholes. Allow 1 roll (10m) of buttonhole twist. But rather than buying 100m of Red Gimp buy 1 extra roll of Red twist.

Make your own Gimp (4-Cord)

Take a good length of the Twist and fold it in half. Again allow 1m for a 1 inch buttonhole.


Tape or weight the doubled up end down.


Keep taught and begin twisting the 2 strands together ANTICLOCKWISE!

Did you ever have a rubber-band wind up toy as a child? Remember if you kept winding the rubber band would, first double up, then suddenly quadruple up? The same thing will happen here.

All of a sudden the double thread will twist together to form 4 threads (called 4-cord)

When it does this, keep twisting but release the tension to allow the 4 cord to form.


Here is a comparison of 4 cord (top) and Gimp.


Once made use as you would the Gimp in the buttonhole construction.

Different shapes?

The principle for every shape buttonhole is the same except:

For a rounded buttonhole, DON’T cut/punch the keyhole hole. Work the buttonhole as above but just fan the stitches at one end to make it rounded. Gimp/4 cord is used as shown.

For a square buttonhole make a bar tack, sew one side then make another bar tack at the ‘front. Complete the second side to finish. Gimp/4 cord is only placed along the long sides.


So there we go, handworked buttonholes. Why not have a go and add a really special touch to your makes? Next post I will show the technique for a Milanese buttonhole but…..

Until next time…..Happy Buttonholing!



13 thoughts on “Handworked Buttonhole Tutorial”

  1. Wow! So beautiful. The perfect ‘how to’, every step clearly explained and photographed. I feel as though I’ve learnt all the secrets to making a professional buttonhole. Thank you so much. I’m one step closer to making the perfect waistcoat for my husband!

  2. Thank you for your excellent step by step guide! Learning how to do handworked buttonholes is actually very high on my wishlist, as well as the Milanese buttonholes. I will be waiting eagerly to see your guide on those as well.

  3. Hi Jamie
    Thank you for the clear instructions and photos.
    I have seen many tutorials and I would love clarification from you. Should the gimp be at the top of the worked buttonhole stitch, or should it be positioned level with what was the cut edge?
    I tend to research and research more and get confused!!

    Many thanks for the time and effort you have gone too in producing this for everyone.

    I agree with you that you can produce excellent results before working on 100 buttonholes!

  4. This is such a great, thorough, easy to follow tutorial! I just made the prettiest, tidiest buttonhole I’ve ever made! Took forever, but feeling optimistic about it getting faster as I keep practicing. Thanks!

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